I did not know I was feeling sadness until I found it hard to swallow. There is no reason for it, I thought. At 94, she is still sharp, most of the time. The closer my Babcia, or grandmother, is to death, the more irreverently she talks about politics. She is progressive and possibly radical for this town of barely 60,000 traditional (read: Polish Catholic and conservative) citizens. She has two sons who are accomplished in their respective ways; the younger of the two is my dad, or my Tatuś, as I say endearingly in Polish.
There lies a mass of asymmetrical triangles in the spectrum of amber and crimson. Her entire body is covered with only her head peeking out from the heaviness of the duvet. The material looks like it is from the 70s, clashing with the faded limes on my grandmother’s peach-colored top. Beams of an autumnal sun rest upon her cheeks until they are jilted when she hears the door shut.
“Ola, Ola, to ty?”
She uses my Polish name, short for the extravagantly Slavic Aleksandra, asking if it is me. I do not respond, I can’t. Her home health aide greets me with an emphatic yes and my grandmother’s eyes reach beyond the bed, beyond the doorway, straining to find me.
I sit at her bedside. I am within a foot of her, a twitching in her fingers clasps and unclasps mine. She looks toward me but her gaze travels on the periphery of my frame. Her countenance is lit from within, a piercing awareness outweighs any sense of loss in her dulled eyes. Small fresh lips surround her mouth as she works around the words to extract my story. She wants to know everything: “When are you done with medical school, what do you think of the newest President, when will you move back to Poland, would you please take 200 zloty off my hands, why are you not eating anything, oh and are you in love?”
It would be incorrect to say I am holding her hand at this point. She has pulled me toward her as much as she can from the bed she has now been in for three months. So much so that she has both hands wrapped around my left arm nearly up to my shoulder. I do not mind, as I nuzzle my head into the bedrail.
My grandmother broke her hip over a year ago. On the cusp of 93, it was decided that nothing would be done about it. She continued to move about her home with a walker and started to receive help from informally-trained home health aides. In small towns like these, social services are put together with odds and ends of people’s time and skills. She now has 24-hour care split among two aides and a distant relative. The fractured hip continued to cause her discomfort which then extended down through her lower extremity. She became bedridden a few months ago, unable to stand the pain. Although confined to a small space with a weakening body, my grandmother does not complain, occasionally popping an ibuprofen.
Conversation between us coincides with commercial breaks for Family Court, the program she flicks on every weekday at 1 p.m. Her afternoon aide shuffles around the room, preparing tea every half hour, chuckling at my grandmother’s engagement with the unfolding story on TV. The aide is a retired woman dressed in shades of grey and brown. The only parts of her that grab my attention are her spritely hazel eyes and modest golden crucifix that hangs around her neck.
Time passes quickly. There is no pressure, even in the silence, to say or do anything in particular. She knows my type because she raised my father — quiet, calm, often withdrawn.
I come to see her again the following day and it is now that I feel the weight of every minute. I have a train to leave town that afternoon and I do not have plans to return to Poland for at least the next half year. It is doubtful that she will scrape by for much longer. Although her awareness is intact, she is gradually becoming disconnected from the outside world. She has difficulty keeping up with conversation unless every word is expressed as a shout. Her vision has long been fading and she can only make out dark blobs hovering about her room. She is unable to remember the last time she was outside, as she lives on the second floor of a building with no elevator.
She hears my fiddling with the coat rack, and I slip my shoes off. I see her starting to look around and call my name. The morning aide is here this time. I take in a scent of faint smoke as I pass her, dressed in black leggings splashed with hot pink. My Babcia does not hesitate to pull me close once more. The aide comes over to feed her a naleśnik z mięsem, a rolled-up crepe filled with meat and onions. My grandmother takes a small bite and chews until I imagine whatever is in her mouth has completely liquefied. She swallows and stops there, refusing any more food. She turns to lie back on the bed as her eyes flutter and close halfway. I feel like that is appropriate — she seems to be equidistant from life and death at this point.
And this is how it goes, I think. She has lost her independence, for the most part, and her senses are diminishing. Her upper body is still mobile, unlike her lower half. Daytime naps have turned into an early afternoon bedtime. All the signs of an impending death.
The thoughts begin to weigh on me as I am left alone with her slumbering body. Seeping in through the grief is also relief and gratitude — that I am here, that I am able to say goodbye, that she is comfortable at home. I think about the patients I have worked with back in the States who were also on death’s doorstep. I barely saw these phases of death as I see them so distinctly now. The aseptic walls and clamor of hospital days towered over life’s subtleties and squashed any sense of a peaceful transition. I am glad medical culture in Poland, in general, trends toward being less aggressive, especially near the end of life. It is common for people to die at home and for friends, neighbors and family to care for those who are on that path.
After nudging my grandmother to say a final ‘see you later,’ I run back at least three times to plaster her cheeks with kisses. I am carrying shards of glass in my chest. I will not be here again, because she will not be either.
“Jestem z Tobą,” she says. I am with you. And I know she is.